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The Quest for Community

The Quest for Community

5.0 1
by Robert Nisbet
One of the leading thinkers to emerge in the postwar conservative intellectual revival was the sociologist Robert Nisbet. His book The Quest for Community, published in 1953, stands as one of the most persuasive accounts of the dilemmas confronting modern society.

Nearly a half century before Robert Putnam documented the atomization of


One of the leading thinkers to emerge in the postwar conservative intellectual revival was the sociologist Robert Nisbet. His book The Quest for Community, published in 1953, stands as one of the most persuasive accounts of the dilemmas confronting modern society.

Nearly a half century before Robert Putnam documented the atomization of society in Bowling Alone, Nisbet argued that the rise of the powerful modern state had eroded the sources of community—the family, the neighborhood, the church, the guild. Alienation and loneliness inevitably resulted. But as the traditional ties that bind fell away, the human impulse toward community led people to turn even more to the government itself, allowing statism—even totalitarianism—to flourish.

ISI Books is proud to present this new edition of Nisbet’s magnum opus, featuring a brilliant introduction by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and three critical essays. Published at a time when our communal life has only grown weaker and when many Americans display cultish enthusiasm for a charismatic president, this new edition of The Quest for Community shows that Nisbet’s insights are as relevant today as ever.

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The Quest for Community

A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom

By Robert Nisbet

ISI Books

Copyright © 1981 Robert A. Nisbet
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-2075-9


The Loss of Community

One may paraphrase the famous words of Karl Marx and say that a specter is haunting the modern mind, the specter of insecurity. Surely the outstanding characteristic of contemporary thought on man and society is the preoccupation with personal alienation and cultural disintegration. The fears of the nineteenth-century conservatives in Western Europe, expressed against a background of increasing individualism, secularism, and social dislocation, have become, to an extraordinary degree, the insights and hypotheses of present-day students of man in society. The widening concern with insecurity and disintegration is accompanied by a profound regard for the values of status, membership, and community.

In every age there are certain key words which by their repetitive use and redefinition mark the distinctive channels of faith and thought. Such words have symbolic values which exert greater influence upon the nature and direction of men's thinking than the techniques used in the study or laboratory or the immediate empirical problems chosen for research. In the nineteenth century, the age of individualism and rationalism, such words as individual, change, progress, reason, and freedom were notable not merely for their wide use as linguistic tools in books, essays, and lectures but for their symbolic value in convictions of immense numbers of men. These words were both the outcome of thought and the elicitors of thought. Men were fascinated by their referents and properties.

All of these words reflected a temper of mind that found the essence of society to lie in the solid fact of the discrete individual—autonomous, self-sufficing, and stable—and the essence of history to lie in the progressive emancipation of the individual from the tyrannous and irrational statuses handed down from the past. Competition, individuation, dislocation of status and custom, impersonality, and moral anonymity were hailed by the rationalist because these were the forces that would be most instrumental in emancipating man from the dead hand of the past and because through them the naturally stable and rational individual would be given an environment in which he could develop illimitably his inherent potentialities. Man was the primary and solid fact; relationships were purely derivative. All that was necessary was a scene cleared of the debris of the past.

If there were some, like TaMe, Ruskin, and William Morris, who called attention to the cultural and moral costs involved—the uprooting of family ties, the disintegration of villages, the displacement of craftsmen, and the atomization of ancient securities—the apostles of rationalism could reply that these were the inevitable costs of Progress. After all, it was argued—argued by liberals and radicals alike—in all great ages of achievement there is a degree of disorder, a snapping of the ties of tradition and security. How else can the creative individual find release for his pent-up powers of discovery and reason if the chains of tradition are not forcibly struck off?

This was the age of optimism, of faith in the abstract individual and in the harmonies of nature. In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, what we are given, as Parrington points out in his great study of American thought, is the matchless picture of a child of nature revolting against the tyrannies of village, family, and conventional morality. It is a revolt characterized, not by apprehensiveness and insecurity, but by all the confidence of thefrontier. In the felicities and equalities of nature Huck finds joyous release from the cloistering prejudices and conventions of old morality. Truth, justice, and happiness lie in man alone.

In many areas of thought and imagination we find like perspectives. The eradication of old restraints, together with the prospect of new and more natural relationships in society, relationships arising directly from the innate resources of individuals, prompted a glowing vision of society in which there would be forever abolished the parochialisms and animosities of a world founded upon kinship, village, and church. Reason, founded upon natural interest, would replace the wisdom Burke and his fellow conservatives had claimed to find in historical processes of use and wont, of habit and prejudice.

"The psychological process which social relations were undergoing," Ostrogorski has written of the nineteenth century, "led to the same conclusions as rationalism and by the same logical path-abstraction and generalization." Henceforth, man's social relations "were bound to be guided not so much by sentiment, which expressed the perception of the particular, as by general principles, less intense in their nature perhaps, but sufficiently comprehensive to take in the shifting multitudes of which the abstract social groups were henceforth composed, groups continually subject to expansion by reason of their continual motion."

Between philosophers as far removed as Spencer and Marx there was a common faith in the organizational powers of history and in the self-sufficiency of the individual. All that was needed was calm recognition of the historically inevitable. In man and his natural affinities lay the bases of order and freedom. These were the affirmations that so largely dominated the thought, lay as well as scholarly, of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. All of the enmity of the French Enlightenment toward the social relationships that were the heritage of the Middle Ages became translated, during the nineteenth century, into a theoretical indifference to problems of the relation of individual security and motivation to contexts of association and cultural norm. Both freedom and order were envisaged generally in terms of the psychology and politics of individual release from the old.

We see this in the social sciences of the age. What was scientific psychology but the study of forces and states of mind within the natural individual, assumed always to be autonomous and stable? Political science and economics were, in their dominant forms, concerned with legal and economic atoms—abstract human beings—and with impersonal relationships supplied by the market or by limited general legislation. All social and cultural differences were resolved by the rationalist into differences of quantity and intensity of individual passions and desires. The stability of the individual was a function of his unalterable instincts and his sovereign reason; the stability of society was guaranteed by the laws of historical change. The two goals of scientific universality and moral emancipation from the past became largely indistinguishable in the philosophy and the social science of the age. Bentham's boast that he could legislate wisely for all of India from the recesses of his own study was hardly a piece of personal eccentricity. It sprang from a confidence both in reason and in the ineradicable sameness and stability of individuals everywhere.

Above everything towered the rationalist's monumental conviction of the organizational character of history—needing occasionally to be facilitated, perhaps, but never directed—and of the self-sufficing stability of the discrete individual.


Today a different set of words and symbols dominates the intellectual and moral scene. It is impossible to overlook, in modern lexicons, the importance of such words as disorganization, disintegration, decline, insecurity, breakdown, instability, and the like. 'What the nineteenth-century rationalist took for granted about society and the nature of man's existence, as the result of an encompassing faith in the creative and organizational powers of history, the contemporary student of society makes the object of increasing apprehension and uncertainty.

At the present time there is in numerous areas of thought a profound reaction to the rationalist point of view. No longer are we convinced that basic organizational problems in human relations are automatically solved by readjustments of political or economic structures. There is a decided weakening of faith in the inherent stability of the individual and in the psychological and moral benefits of social impersonality. Impersonality, moral neutrality, individualism, and mechanism have become, in recent decades, terms to describe pathological conditions of society. Nearly gone is the sanguine confidence in the power of history itself to engender out of the soil of disorganization seeds of new and more successful forms of social and moral security.

A concern with cultural disorganization underlies almost every major philosophy of history in our time. The monumental historical synthesis of a Toynbee represents anew the effort of the prophetic historian to find in the casual forces of history meanings that will illuminate the darkness of the present age. Like St. Augustine's City of God, written to sustain the faith of fifth-century Christians, Toynbee's volumes, with all their magnificent learning and religious insight, are directed to the feelings of men who live beneath the pall of insecurity that overhangs the present age. One cannot resist the suspicion that for most of Toynbee's readers the governing interest is in the sections of A Study of History that deal not with genesis and development but with decline and disintegration. And it is hard to put aside the suspicion that Toynbee himself has reserved his greatest interpretative skill for the melancholy phenomena of death and decay, a circumstance which, like Milton's characterization of Satan, may bespeak an irresistible, if morally reluctant, love for his subject. Toynbee's cataloguing of historic stigmata of social dissolution—schism in society and the soul, archaism, futurism, and above all, the process of "deracination," the genesis of the proletariat—reads like a list of dominant themes in contemporary thought.

Are not the works of the major prophets of the age, Niebuhr, Bernanos, Berdyaev, Sorokin, Spengler, and others, based foremost upon the conviction that ours is a sick culture, marked by the pathologies of defeat and failure of regenerative processes? Is it not extraordinary how many of the major novelists and poets and playwrights of the present age have given imaginative expression to themes of dissolution and decay—of class, family, community, and morality? Not only are these themes to be seen among the Titans—Proust, Mann, Joyce, Kafka, Eliot—but among a large and increasing number of secondary or popular writers. It is hard to miss the centrality of themes of dissolution in contemporary religious and literary expressions and the fascination that is exerted by the terminology of failure and defeat. Disaster is seen as the consequence of process rather than event, of "whimper" rather than "bang," to use the words of T. S. Eliot.

How extraordinary, when compared with the optimism of half a century ago, is the present ideology of lament. There is now a sense of disorganization that ranges all the way from the sociologist's concern with disintegration of the family and small community to the religious prophet's intuition that moral decay is enveloping the whole of Western society. Premonitions of disaster have been present in all ages, along with millennial hopes for the termination of the mundane world. But the present sense of dissolution is of a radically different sort. It looks to no clear salvation and it is held to be the consequence neither of Divine decree nor of fortuitous catastrophe. It is a sense of disorganization that takes root in the very conditions which to earlier generations of rationalists appeared as the necessary circumstances of progress. Where the nineteenth-century rationalist saw progressively higher forms of order and freedom emerging from the destruction of the old, the contemporary sociologist is not so sanguine. He is likely to see not creative emancipation but sterile insecurity, not the framework of the new but the shell of the old.

There is a large and growing area of psychology and social science that emphasizes this contemporary preoccupation with disintegration and disorganization. Innumerable studies of community disorganization, family disorganization, personality disintegration, not to mention the myriad investigations of industrial strife and the dissolution of ethnic subcultures and "folk" areas, all serve to point up the idea of disorganization in present-day social science. The contemporary student of man is no more able to resist the lure of the evidences of social disorganization than his nineteenth-century predecessor could resist the manifest evidences of creative emancipation and reorganization. However empirical his studies of social relationships, however bravely he rearranges the semantic elements of his terminology to support belief in his own moral detachment, and however confidently he may sometimes look to the salvational possibilities of political legislation for moral relief, it is plain that the contemporary student of human relations is haunted by perceptions of disorganization and the possibility of endemic collapse.


A further manifestation of the collapse of the rationalist view of man, and even more revealing, is the conception of man's moral estrangement and spiritual isolation that pervades our age. Despite the influence and power of the contemporary State there is a true sense in which the present age is more individualistic than any other in European history. To examine the whole literature of lament of our time—in the social sciences, moral philosophy, theology, the novel, the theater—and to observe the frantic efforts of millions of individuals to find some kind of security of mind is to open our eyes to the perplexities and frustrations that have emerged from the widening gulf between the individual and those social relationships within which goals and purposes take on meaning. The sense of cultural disintegration is but the obverse side of the sense of individual isolation.

The historic triumph of secularism and individualism has presented a set of problems that looms large in contemporary thought. The modern release of the individual from traditional ties of class, religion, and kinship has made him free; but, on the testimony of innumerable works in our age, this freedom is accompanied not by the sense of creative release but by the sense of disenchantment and alienation. The alienation of man from historic moral certitudes has been followed by the sense of man's alienation from fellow man.

Where the lone individual was once held to contain within himself all the propensities of order and progress, he is now quite generally regarded as the very symbol of society's anxiety and insecurity. He is the consequence, we are now prone to say, not of moral progress but of social disintegration.

Frustration, anxiety, insecurity, as descriptive words, have achieved a degree of importance in present-day thought and writing that is astonishing. Common to all of them and their many synonyms is the basic conception of man's alienation from society's relationships and moral values. If in Renaissance thought it was the myth of reasonable man which predominated; if in the eighteenth century it was natural man; and, in the nineteenth century, economic or political man, it is by no means unlikely that for our own age it is alienated or maladjusted man who will appear to later historians as the key figure of twentieth-century thought. Inadequate man, insufficient man, disenchanted man, as terms, reflect a multitude of themes in contemporary writing. Thus Berdyaev sees before him in the modern world the "disintegration of the human image"; Toynbee sees the proletarian, he who has lost all sense of identity and belonging; for Ortega y Gasset it is mass man, the anonymous creature of the market place and the mass ballot; for John Dewey, it is the lost individual—bereft of the loyalties and values which once endowed life with meaning.

"The natural state of twentieth-century man," the protagonist of a recent novel declares, "is anxiety." At the very least, anxiety has become a major state of mind in contemporary imaginative writing. Underlying many works is the conception of man as lost, baffled, and obsessed. It is not strange that for so many intellectuals the novels and stories of Franz Kafka should be, or have been until recently, the basis of almost a cult. Whatever the complexity and many-sidedness of Kafka's themes, whatever the deepest roots of his inspiration, such novels as The Trial and The Castle are, as many critics have observed, allegories of alienation and receding certainty. The residual meaning of these novels may well be man's relation to God, a universal and timeless theme. But it is nearly impossible not to see them also as symbolizations of man's effort to achieve status, to uncover meaning in the society around him, and to discover guilts and innocences in a world where the boundaries between guilt and innocence become more and more obscured. The plight of Kafka's hero is the plight of many persons in the living world: isolation, estrangement, and the compulsive search for fortresses of certainty and the equities of judgment.


Excerpted from The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet. Copyright © 1981 Robert A. Nisbet. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert Nisbet (1913–1996) was a professor at Columbia University and the author of The Sociological Tradition, The Social Bond, The Present Age, and other books.

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